30 December 2018

Grief, Fear, Dancing

On and off over the years we have woken to a CD alarm. Recently I switched the disc to the Tallis Scholars recording of Josquin's Missa Pange Lingua. Though I take issue with their modal reading (refusing to raise the leading tone for minor-chord cadences!) they make an enjoyable sound; and theirs was the only CD version available to me in the 90s of this Renaissance masterpiece. (Some of you may recall this also being the mass I recorded on two guitars). At the stroke of seven, as the opening chant first filled the bedroom, I became convulsed with sobs. It was one of those cries that seems to come out of nowhere yet out of everywhere. Twenty years ago, after the nurse phoned to inform us that my father's marathon of monitored starvation was run, this very music was playing as I entered his hospital room. Perhaps intending to have the whole album repeat, she had pressed the button on the CD-player that repeats the first track only. Knowing it to have been the last thing he heard in this life, I therefore experience this plainchant as a portal to his soul. One memory bridges to another from a few years before when, following an operation, Dad was lumbering around the house on crutches. I was painting window trim while Mahler's Third played on the stereo. Unable to conceal his sobs while passing by en route to the bathroom, he made an attempt at excusing himself muttering, "this music undoes me." Perhaps, then, I am genetically predisposed to such music-induced weeping.

Grief is terrifying to face until you do. In our culture most primarily associate the process with the passing of a loved one. But every day we have had to act OK with injustices around us in the local and global community. We need to grieve the indifference—in violation of our inherent nature—we adopted to get through each of these moments. A few weeks back the preacher at Emmanuel Episcopal in Eastsound (also a therapist) in discussing the alienation and injustice resulting from capitalism reflected, "all we can do is grieve." By this I believe he meant that we cannot take effective action without grieving first—that is, ceasing to numb. I think of the Argentinian song "Solo le pido a Dios": All I ask of God is that I don't become indifferent to pain, to injustice, to war, to deceit, or to the future. It feels like those elements have all ramped up in the 40 years since the composition of that song; the songwriter Leon Gieco, it must be remembered, was then living under military dictatorship. Grieving offers an antidote to indifference. During my period active in RC (Re-evaluation Counseling), I got practice "discharging" grief in the context of regularly scheduled sessions. I got to a lot of tears by repeating the direction "I refuse to numb myself to injustice in the world." No longer scheduled, I presently grieve only when it hits me. Every day the headlines confront us with the choice to numb or grieve. When choosing the former we slip into addictive behaviors—behaviors that, especially as practiced by the world's wealthiest, drive the destruction of our planet and all its species. As with music performance, we get what we practice. Numbing leads to more numbing and to cynicism. It is when we choose to grieve that we create an opening in our shield for hope to slip in. 

Those of us who have administered substance use disorder assessments know the diagnostic criteria that qualify a client for mild, moderate and severe levels. Most of these concern willful ignoring the consequences of use (exemplified in another song: "there's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes.") Unchecked addiction to lining one's pockets might explain how some born predisposed to compassion for living things can develop the tolerance for cruelty seen today. For the addict brain is a merciless hungry reptile—the crocodile waiting under the bridge for whatever prey falls in. The addict brain experiences fear but understands nothing. I imagine it dwells within all of us to a greater or lesser degree. As a child it was of utmost importance that the closet door be closed at night because I was imagined there to be ghosts in there. As I matured so did my fears. Autocratic leaders, driven by their own addictions to wealth and power, gauge their message to the fear-maturity of the public they were misplacedly entrusted to serve. 

As much as I miss having more time to devote to music*, having the day job as a therapist helps moderate my own addictive proclivities and maintain something of a balance between serving others and indulging myself. Recently becoming a provider in the suspect mental health system has given me a glimpse through the eyes of those challenged by societal expectations. Who am I to say whether my ability to cope is any less functional than their dysregulation over being expected to cope with a world that makes so little sense? Perhaps you have been hearing recently about Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 15, diagnosed with depression, obsessive compulsive, and autism spectrum disorders. The first two would appear appropriate reactions to having one's eyes open to present reality (that on top of whatever personal trauma may have been experienced). The latter (neurological) diagnosis—whether resulting from genetics, toxins in the environment, or whatever—affords her a perspective in social interactions that cuts through the BS. Being a female young person adds to her vulnerability—a vulnerability that qualifies her to speak truth to numbed-out adults. In addiction treatment we also assess for stages of change: Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, and Action being the first four. Greta is in the Action stage, and she implores the rest of us to leave behind the self-involvement that keeps us in fumbling about in the first two stages. She may not picture herself courageous as much as sensible. Her activism is a dual intervention on behalf of her own mental health and a terminally ill planet. Allen Ivey (who I read for a career development class) wrote about the therapeutic value in "client-collaborators" taking decisive actions against the societal sources of their oppression. Systemically we penalize those who cannot accommodate themselves to an irrational culture and reward those who can. But we desperately need the former to lead us out of this mess we're in.

Each time I hear intoned the words of Paul, "love casteth out fear," I see more areas where it applies. In her book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control —mentioned in the accompanying poem—Heather Forbes identifies love is the crucial element missing from typical interventions practiced with traumatized youth. Once caregivers start feeling manipulated by a child most will default to acting on that feeling rather than maintain the objective curiosity required to lovingly or effectively address the child's behaviors. The deficit of secure attachment means the child lives in fear, expressing that fear in behaviors that stimulate adults' fears. But it is not solely adoptive youth, the objects of this book, who experience chronic fear and lack of love. Who carries out hate speech that does not feel both unloved and fearful? Show me someone who feels truly connected to other humans who rallies with white supremacists. As with children or adolescents, they can make no sense out of persuasive arguments until their needs for love and connection are met.

I imagine that some of you may not have read this far if the post had been titled merely “Grief, Fear." For I would also like to recount times doing kitchen tasks when my phone—in shuffle mode and through a loudspeaker—starts playing a track by Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. My feet are suddenly at the mercy of the boom-chick of rhythm guitars. My knife-wielding arm slices zucchini slaved to the backbeat. Whether the meal even gets prepared becomes of secondary importance to my expression of joy at being alive in this time and place. I heard that Django's unchecked spontaneity meant that he often did not show up for his gigs, leaving bandmate Stephane Grappelli to carry on as best he could. One readily hears that fully-alive quality in Django's impish, fiendishly clever, live-wire solos and fills. It leads me to ponder if it is possible to live the moment so well without burning out so fast. 

I quoted the minister above saying "all we can do is grieve"; can we likewise say "all we can do is dance"? While living in Gloucester I was blessed to have a friend in songwriter Joanne Schreiber. Knowing her death was imminent, she organized one final performance at Blackburn Studios. She did not take the mic, however, until she had greeted us all individually with a hug and brief exchange. A few weeks later we gathered in that same space to memorialize her. The CD of her song "Ooh Your Love" was put on and we all danced together. One might expect it to have posed a barrier for Joanne that I was a straight Christian male. To the contrary, she offered unconditional acceptance and held out for the dancer in me.
*I was able to get 20 pieces recorded this past Fall, my first efforts on the 8-string. You may listen at http://soundcloud.com/jsteele-2. In the new year, as my position shifts to my own island, I anticipate recording videos of original pieces in the hours I currently lose to commuting. 

20 December 2018

Scent of Hope

[accompanying a gift of Braiding Sweetgrass by R.W. Kimmerer]

Chinese lights are twinkling 
and I'm in the gifting crunch.
‘Tis the season when each sunset
starts up shortly after lunch. 
Likely you’ll be groaning:
“Here he goes again,
with incessant rhyming couplets 
and long-overdue Amen!”
But recently I’ve verified,
as one observant reader:
nearly every line of Emily’s 
was in this very meter!
Blithely do I burden
the earth with one more poem
while insisting it be tethered 
to yet another tome.
At first I thought to share 
the book from work I stole:
Beyond Consequences,
Logic, and Control. 
And while providing insights
from which we all may gain,
‘tis to help adoptive parents know 
the trauma-addled brain.
While certainly this book applies 
to clients I am seeing 
it also sheds new light upon 
the core of my own being. 
For each of us sought comforts
when we felt left behind; 
once means of survival 
now our character defined.
In memories of my father 
preoccupied with boats
I see my own obsession 
with all stuff involving notes. 
In this case the trauma 
not in my past but in his;
yet somehow it infuses 
Christmas-present as it is.
I next then sought suggestions
from my favorite avid reader,
with whom I’m blessed to dwell
near madronas and a cedar. 

So taken now with sweetgrass 
she bought some, braided too—
a sacred scent reminder 
of time with Lakota-Sioux 
on a North Dakota landscape,
a liberated nation. 
For them it was existence; 
for us it was vacation. 
The spirits that they honored, 
the lodges where they sweated,
so distant from big-oil execs
with spirits tourniqueted. 
One might ask in earnest, 
after all the broken treaties,
whether these two kinds of human 
truly are of the same species. 
The book addresses arrogance 
towards planet and its creatures— 
a clueless needing to control 
those who should be our teachers—
while also offering lessons 
from the scientific view
(much as did Dad’s novel;
let’s give credit where it’s due).
Might our drinking binge of resources 
be scaled back to intinction?
Could we treat this land indigenously 
to thwart our own extinction? 
What once was labeled progress 
we now must redefine;
harness all the insights learned 
for massive redesign. 
But more than the retooling 
of the power-hungry grid,
we need to build connections 
our economy forbids:
connection to each other, 
connection to the past, 
and connection to a future 
richly scented with sweetgrass.